Giovanni Donatelli, EMBA '15, CEO of The Language Group and Finalist for the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award
"The EMBA program is packaged so well that [now] I'm able to jump from department to department, discipline to discipline, and solve a myriad of problems." - Giovanni Donatelli
Success is a process, not a landing strip. For Giovanni Donatelli, EMBA ’15 and CEO of The Language Group, a company that is part of an ever growing, though largely obscure 50-billion-dollar industry, success requires vigilance. The Language Group is highly competitive and its creator recognizes his humble beginnings with awe and continued gratitude. Bromidic as it may sound, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Giovanni’s family immigrated to the U.S. from Italy when he was in the third grade.
Of most recent, The Language Group has become a finalist for the prestigious EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award. Past winners include the founders of Starbucks. As a nominee, The Language Group represents the mid-Atlantic region. They were nominated by one of their vendors. The application process is extensive with a lengthy selection process. Close to 200 companies were nominated. Now the list is down to 40 finalists spanning 10 categories. The winners will be announced in June and the ceremony held in D.C. For Giovanni, just being a finalist is exciting.
“It’s one of those pie in the sky goals you kind of pin on your goal list that you never think you’ll reach, but it’s always nice to be aware of—and 20 years later I am an entrepreneur of the year finalist.”
Giovanni takes pride in his work and is proud of his employees. The Language Group was also voted Virginia Beach Small Business of the Year of 2019 by Inside Business.
What exactly is The Language Group and what services do they offer? The Language Group, headquartered in Virginia Beach, began as a small enterprise in April 1999 and grew over two decades. “We provide language services. Not education. We don’t teach languages. We help organizations, whether they’re companies or governments, ensure business continuity when there is a language barrier.” For example, Smithfield Foods, one of The Language Group’s first clients going back 20 years, has a diverse employee population. When a corporation compiles literature, materials need to be translated for health benefits, handbooks, etc. If an employee gets injured and the HR department for that company wants to interview him or her to determine worker’s compensation, then an interpreter via telecommunication can be provided by The Language Group. It truly is a niche, yet essential market.
In 1997, Giovanni completed his undergraduate studies at Virginia Tech, having majored in Finance. Shortly thereafter, he began working for a small language company that went out of business. This experience helped Giovanni see the importance of properly marketing a product. At that time, before the internet infused everyday culture, there was no way to research language services electronically. Giovanni had to drive to D.C. and attend conferences. Being bilingual also sparked his interest in the need for language services. He admits, it was difficult to figure out “how to monetize languages.” Living in a maritime town like Norfolk with ties to international companies, Giovanni recognized the potential for clients. For 7-8 months he devoted himself to research, working odd-jobs to make ends meet. Then he decided to lay the foundation for his vision. The Language Group began operating in 1999. Troubleshooting how to make language services a viable product to market and sell, Giovanni started going to courthouses, handing out his business card to the people at the cashier window for traffic tickets. He understood there was a market for non-English speaking defendants seeking assistance. He created an Interpreter-database for the courts. The courts started contacting The Language Group. Giovanni utilized a staffing-model. Trained, skilled linguists were provided as interpreters all over the Hampton roads area. With patience, The Language Group began pursuing corporate level clients.
In looking back, Giovanni says the most challenging obstacle in launching the company was “To identify potential clients that would use this service, and then demonstrate to them the value of this service. New client acquisition was a painstakingly slow process. Even though we felt qualified to take on larger companies and projects, few were willing to take the risk with us.”
Nine years later, in 2008, his business was doing well, cruising along. “I learned how to run a business by throwing myself into it, but I still felt I might be missing some opportunities.” Giovanni possessed savvy street smarts but felt if “I had proper education I could leverage that education and the Language Group would benefit from it.” Struggling to find time to go back to college for a master’s, Giovanni had to defer until 2012. He had hired a few more employees and finally had some free time. He began researching programs at Regent, William & Mary, ODU, even an online program at Harvard. When he attended both the flex and EMBA Experience Day “Open House”, he was “blown away.” The way the programs were packaged “really seemed like a good, natural fit to the way I learn.” The next question was how could he afford to attend? Giovanni is honest when he says W&M offers one of the most expensive programs. He applied for financial aid and thus began the process. He also recalls having to study for the GMATs all over again because he hadn’t taken any standardized tests in over twenty years. Without saying it, Giovanni’s actions reflect the ingredient necessary for success: Motivation. Ultimately, Giovanni found he had “the best experience when researching” Mason’s EMBA program. He’d been objective throughout the process, not ruling out other colleges, but he soon discovered “I’d be doing myself a disservice if I did not attend [their] program.” By this time, Giovanni was in his late 30s.
Giovanni is not impulsive. When asked what motivates him in life, he requests to take a moment, to respond meaningfully rather than provide a generic quip. “That changes with age, based on where I am in life. Today it is to provide my staff with job security. By having a constantly up-to-date, high-quality product and offering viable solutions, we ensure customer retention.” The Language Group is a national company offering services coast-to-coast. Most clients don’t realize this because Giovanni’s team makes every client feel important. “By ensuring customer retention, you ensure job security.” Of course, this current motivation evolved as the company grew. Ten years ago, Giovanni’s focus was to learn as much as he could about the language industry in order to provide a solution in the Hampton Roads area. He literally created the market. Unlike New York or some large government companies, Virginia wasn’t a very mature language market twenty years ago. Giovanni saw the need for a service and created it. “We are the fastest growing language service company in the country.”
What advice does Giovanni have for those considering, or who are already in, the EMBA program? Most applicants are successful professionals in their field looking to harness and build upon their business acumen and company assets. “The EMBA program was an incredibly valuable experience which taught me how to solve problems with colleagues who are peers and may not have the same viewpoint as me.” The EMBA courses cultivate the ability to take adverse points of view and solve the problem(s) constructively. “The program is packaged so well that [now] I’m able to jump from department to department, discipline to discipline (whether the problem is in HR, marketing, or operationally-related), and solve a myriad of problems. Giovanni keeps a library of books, including textbooks, in his office as a resource. “How to make sure your goals are met while also meeting the goals of colleagues around you who have a different motivation—W&M gave me the tools to do this. This is incredibly valuable to me and what I walked away with.”
Are there any professors or mentors in the program at W&M that stand out in your education? “They all were equally impactful in teaching. I would be remiss to leave anyone out. They, alone, made the program worth every minute of investment in time and money.” Giovanni explains how Karen Locke, Professor of Organizational Behavior, doesn’t realize how impactful her course is because she teaches so directly it almost seems she takes it casually. “The content is crucial for the success of an organization. I keep going back to some of the lessons she taught. What a wonderful instructor; she might not even remember me to be honest,” Giovanni says with a laugh. Also, recent retiree, Larry Ring, is “a pillar of the program…both fearful and entertaining at the same time. He is an amazing and talented professor.” Bill Stauffer’s Business Law and Ethics class made its mark, too. “The way [Stauffer] delivered one of his lessons was so effective that I use it in decision-making, daily, here at my office.” Stauffer teaches his students to “trust your gut.” Giovanni explains how, “We all have different moral compasses which we’re calibrated by and this is critical. It may sound trivial, but the way Stauffer framed and delivered the lesson was powerful...I believe it came from the GM motors example we studied.” Giovanni understands what it means to walk a fine line between choosing to do the right thing versus the fiscally responsible thing. You must trust your gut and do the right thing for long-term benefits even if in the short-term it is detrimental to the company. There is sacrifice, not of principle, but personal and monetary gain. One needs to be patient and willing to make temporary sacrifices for the greater end.
“For everyday operations, if you teach your staff to follow a certain moral compass, you end up having a proper culture in the office and the client senses this and is more engaged and inclined to work with you. Following your gut creates a certain culture within a company.” Recently, Giovanni printed and copied Bill Stauffer’s 13 tenets from his Final Lecture. He presented them to his staff in his meeting. Giovanni recognizes Stauffer’s profound way of teaching which he now applies to his own staff. “You can’t quantify it. It’s priceless.” Lastly, Giovanni would like John Strong to know that his was the “hardest course, most challenging, but I enjoyed it. Maybe I took it casually since I did my undergrad in finance and I thought it would be easy. I want John to know that I tried, I really tried.” Dealing with adult executives who have returned to college presents an interesting dynamic. There’s an ego at play, which is natural. The “students” come to learn but don’t want to be patronized.
“The professors, all of them, use a level balance of diplomacy. They’re wonderful human beings.”
One of Giovanni’s favorite books, his Business Bible, is “The Goal” by Eliyahu Goldratt. “I live by that book, which was recommended to us by our Operational Management professor. It discusses how to solve “bottlenecks” in management. For recreation, Giovanni reads Steve Barry thrillers. He enjoys the mix of historical facts with fiction. To improve himself as a professional, his stacks include periodicals, business journals, The Economist.
Giovanni’s philosophy in life is simple yet profound: “To be an upstanding human being whether I’m dealing with executives or a homeless person. Everyone should be treated equally and given the benefit of the doubt. Everyone has the right to be properly evaluated without any preconceived notions.” In the hiring process, he spends an hour with potential candidates because he wants to get to know his applicants. He takes the time.
“We’re all here, together, to solve a problem. We have different roles, but if we’re successful in our roles then the company thrives, and we have a future. Everyone deserves a fair chance to introduce him/herself."
His guiding principle is: “Take care of your people and [they] will take care of your clients.” Giovanni prides himself on providing a wonderful place for his staff. The Language Group was voted overall best place to work for all of Hampton Roads in 2018. They offer a Wellness Program to employees. Giovanni uses the most up-to-date software. He genuinely works to give his team a quality of life because they’re with [The Language Group] 40 hours a week, which is more than their families. “I want to make sure they’re happy."
Giovanni is refreshingly direct. Competitors around the country hire The Language Group to do their work for them. Sort of like a ghostwriter or Amazon hiring UPS to make their deliveries. In-house, other companies can’t provide the services that The Language Group offers. “One of those companies wanted to come to our office to see how we do it. An executive watched our company for a couple of days. He was astounded to discover that we were not putting on a show for him as our competitor.” Some of Giovanni’s staff asked why he was showing competitors “under the hood” so-to-speak. Giovanni replied matter of fact. “Because they can’t replicate it. It starts at the top with philosophy: dress code, clean furniture, dining options for employees.” Every detail matters; many competitors take this for granted. Their client-employee culture is different. Office culture takes time to establish. The executive who visited The Language Group was blown away by the culture and efficiency. Half the amount of people are doing twice the volume of work in the industry. “I am so proud of the culture we’ve created as well as the solution-efficiency.” Following through on ideas is critical. Giovanni knows this inside and out. Executing goals through action, not thoughts, is how a business is born. Conception begins with the idea, but plans and strategies, even if they’re trial and error, must be implemented. “90% of entrepreneurs will fail the first year, that’s just life. When I started the business, I had a vision of what it would look like. Applying your ideas to the marketplace is critical. When I started, the software wasn’t in place. That didn’t happen until 10 years later.” Longevity, being able to commit to a vision for the long haul, is truly the serum of success. Currently, The Language Group uses an app-based model to manage resources around the country. Giovanni knows his clients which is imperative to every business owner. “Creating an experience that as a client I would want to experience,” is what it’s all about.
Continuing to learn and improve one’s self is an earmark of Giovanni’s career.
“You start doing something, you believe in it, next thing you know your [company’s] getting awards and you say, ‘Well, I’m just doing my job,’ but it is nice to see that it’s being recognized. I thank William & Mary for this added exposure. [You] are an integral part of my success.”